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Mosul: A Lesson For Kandahar

Posted by on January 16th, 2011

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

Yesterday, two more American soldiers engaged in "non-combat activities" were shot to death in Iraq, and a third was wounded. They were killed by an Iraqi soldier who smuggled live ammunition into a training exercise and then turned his gun on his trainers.

While this type of "friendly" fire incident is no where near as prevalaent in Iraq as it is in Afghanistan – only five such incidents have been publicly acknowledged since 2003, as opposed to a dozen such in Afghanistan in just the last three years – every single one has happened in the Mosul area. Nowadays, when you hear about attacks on Iraqi Christians, it happens in Mosul. There's daily violence in Iraq, still, and much of it is in Mosul.

It's always Mosul, which Finnish journalist Jari Lindholm describes as "a miserable COIN failure no one ever cared to properly analyse." Despite claims that the war in Iraq is over, Mosul remains a hotbed of extremist violence and a stronghold for Al Qaeda, tying down a substantial portion of the Iraqi Army. In June, the NYT's Timothy Williams reported:

Whatever the reason, no one has been able to quell Mosul’s violence: It is one of the few urban areas in Iraq where American combat troops patrol the streets. Some 18 Iraqi Army battalions are stationed in the city, and hundreds of Iraqi police officers staff checkpoints.

But in Amil, people say they want nothing to do with the Iraqi Army in particular — which in Mosul is composed primarily of Shiites from southern Iraq. Residents complain the soldiers do not understand their culture, and are rude at best, brutal at worst, suspecting everyone in the neighborhood of being a member of Al Qaeda.

“There’s no trust between the security forces and the people,” said one resident, Hazim Mahmud al-Sahan, whose son was recently killed in Amil, not far from an Iraqi Army checkpoint.

For years, though, the greater scorn was poured on Americans. But in a few months they will be gone, it seems regardless of whether places like Amil descend into worse violence.

“There will be greater problems when the Americans leave,” said Didar Abdulla al-Zibari, a member of the local provincial council. He paused for effect, before saying that America “will be blamed” for leaving.

Strange that in 2007, the city was being hailed as one of General Petraeus' great COIN victories (even as the local Sunnis were doing some ethnic cleansing of the city's Kurds). Of course, when Mosul slid back downhill, the Teflon General had already moved on and was untouched by the failure.

Lindholm, in a post last year, suggested we look to Mosul as one indicator of where COIN in Afghanistan might lead.

After years of much-touted offensives* by both Iraqi and U.S. forces, the northern city remains the deadliest piece of urban real estate in Iraq. A year ago, two large-scale Iraqi Army operations were supposed to break the backbone of the Sunni insurgency and end the cycle of violence fed by nationalism, crime, Islamic fanaticism and general despair. It didn’t. The 15-month tour of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, one of the most accomplished and proficient units in the U.S. Army, was by all accounts a mixed bag. Violence was reduced, but car bombs still wreak havoc, politicians are assassinated, IEDs kill innocents, and after local elections upset the political balance of power, Kurdish-Arab tensions threaten to escalate into war.

The lesson? There are simply too many actors involved in the multilayered conflict in Mosul for classic COIN to work. First of all, the fault lines are not sectarian but ethnic. You can’t protect the population by walling off neighbourhoods, because you wouldn’t know whom to wall in and whom to keep out. Second, you can’t cut off terrorist infiltration because you don’t have enough troops, and a single dirt berm doesn’t do it. Third, you can’t pay off the hardcore militants, because they don’t want your money; and you can’t pay off the gangsters because they don’t need your money. And fourth, you can’t stop the IEDs, because there’s always a jobless IDP willing to dump a pressure plate on a road for ten bucks.

A porous international border, lucrative smuggling routes, a restless refugee population, transnational jihadis mingling with local nationalists, and an explosive ethnic mix — if this rings a bell, it’s because the war in Mosul has more in common with the morass we face in Afghanistan than it has with Baghdad.

Kandahar probably has the best chance to be the Mosul of Afghanistan in another two or three years. After several much-acclaimed offensives, the local hardcore militants will be just as hardcore, the local gangsters will be just as opium-rich, the Afghan security forces patrolling this Pushtun heartland will be just as packed with non-Pushtuns and Petraeus' heavy hand will have ended all chance of American counter-insurgency winning "hearts and minds".

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